Macs stick around. What about other laptops?
January 26, 2013 12:36 PM   Subscribe

I would like to save up for a new laptop. My current laptop is an original (2006) black MacBook. Should I save up for a new/refurb MacBook [Pro/Air], or are there less expensive but high-quality PC laptops out there?

I would like to save up for a new laptop, but a Mac, even a refurbished one, is almost too expensive to wish for right now. All my experience with Mac laptops is that they become obsolete speedwise long before they wear out physically, when treated right. All my (limited) experience with PC laptops is that they feel cheap and some part inevitably breaks with regular use and needs to be replaced for a disproportionate cost.

I'm extremely partial to Macs, even when I don't run Mac OS X on them. I love the feel of the keyboard and the solidity of their build. Trying to use my roommate's netbook's trackpad is like trying to write left-handed.

It'd almost be no question that I want another Mac, but recent models are much less upgradeable (and thus less future-proof) than they used to be. Can't replace the battery, can't upgrade the RAM or the hard drive (on the Retina models, at least).

Basically, I'm looking for a very solid, sleek laptop with a lot of thought to UX design and enough power and upgrade potential to last for 5+ years.

As far as my usage patterns: I have a desktop that I use for work (software development). I use my MacBook on the couch for web surfing with plenty of Chrome tabs open, a Twitter client, and other basic things. I would like to do basic time-passing gaming (anything where orientation doesn't depend on the mouse, because of the trackpad), running Flash or HTML5 apps and games, watching videos on occasion, and so on. A few times a week I take my MacBook out on battery and do dev work.

tl;dr requirements:
  • Dual core minimum
  • 3+ hour battery life with moderate usage
  • RAM upgradeable to 8GB+
  • Hard drive upgradeable
  • Multi-touch trackpad with Mac-like features (two-finger scrolling, etc)
  • Mid-size: 13-15", good resolution
  • Well-built, no history of faulty power connectors, hinges, trackpad buttons, power bricks etc.
  • Significantly cheaper than a comparably-powerful Mac
...Am I better off just buying a Mac?
posted by WasabiFlux to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Lenovo's ThinkPads are generally high-quality beasts (excepting the x100-series), but you're not going to get the same trackpad experience you have on a Macbook. There's simply not a comparable trackpad on the market.
posted by BrandonW at 12:42 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Actually, my Lenovo Thinkpad Edge does two-finger scrolling and buttonless "press the trackpad to click" clicking. It's pretty Mac-like. The 14" Edge does everything WasabiFlux asks for.
posted by deadmessenger at 12:48 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'd consider the Samsung QX410 as a strong Mac Air competitor. It can take 8GB RAM according to the PDF spec sheet (the web spec page doesn't seem to mention this).
posted by zippy at 12:53 PM on January 26, 2013

Best answer: I really like my Lenovo - and a lot of people say, quality-wise, it's Lenovos and Macs and everything else. It was considerably cheaper than a comparable Mac, the keyboard is great and it feels very solid. But (and this is a big but) their reputation as the Volvos of the computing world is spot on. It is not pretty and shiny like a Mac.
posted by rhymer at 12:57 PM on January 26, 2013 [1 favorite]

Definitely do your research before buying a Thinkpad. I bought one in February of 2009 and, by February of 2010, the hinge between the bottom and top parts was broken (leaving wires exposed and starting to fray) and the thing was running so slowly it was barely usable. That was after having the part that takes the power cord break in May of 2009, and having to send it to be repaired, which took over 2 weeks.

That's when I bought my MacBook Pro. Sorry.
posted by lunasol at 12:57 PM on January 26, 2013

Response by poster: Oh, a possibly important point: if I do get a PC laptop, I will not be running Windows on it 99% of the time. Probably Ubuntu or Xubuntu.
posted by WasabiFlux at 1:07 PM on January 26, 2013

Best answer: The "true" Thinkpads are the X series (12") and T series (14 and 15", but you might want to pay a little extra to upgrade to a good screen resolution), with the other lines generally regarded as inferior. They have great build quality and play well with Linux. But if you already know that you really like Macs, might as well just go that route. One consideration, though, is to check the current state of Linux on retina displays; it wasn't a great experience last I heard, but that may have changed.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:52 PM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

Anecdata: I'm typing this on a Toshiba Satellite M110 which I bought in 2006. I travel a lot, so it hasn't had a particularly easy life. It's running Ubuntu 12.04, has never given me any trouble, and shows no signs of deterioration. My girlfriend's laptop is of similar vintage and still going strong -- I *think* it's an HP but can't remember the model, sorry. A friend of mine bought a Macbook Pro at around the same time, and is now on her third (they seem to die at around the two-year mark).

Actual data: the study at has Asus, Toshiba, and Sony as the top three for laptop reliability (in that order). Unfortunately a breakdown by manufacturer doesn't tell you a huge amount, since build quality can vary a lot between models.

Suggestion: Apart from Nthing ThinkPads, I'd like to point out a couple of explicitly Linux-friendly options: ZaReason UltraLap (who ship US-wide and have a store in Berkeley) and the Dell XPS 13.
posted by pont at 2:15 PM on January 26, 2013

Best answer: I'm currently using a Lenovo Ideapad U400, aluminum unibody construction, nice large glass muti-touch clickpad etc... I've had it for about 7 months and had no issues. That being said, Apple uses some dark, dark voodoo for it's touchpad drivers that nobody else has been able to replicate...
posted by MikeMc at 3:19 PM on January 26, 2013

FWIW Best Buy is currently running a sale on MBAs - $200 off. That's a better deal than you will ever see from Apple.
posted by MikeMc at 3:23 PM on January 26, 2013

I have heard a lot of good things about build quality of Sager notebooks. The NP2240 is their cheapest one, starting at $719 (but you can add upgrades). It comes with: 14" screen, dual core i5 CPU, 750 GB HDD, 4 GB RAM. Not sure on battery life, but that depends a lot on usage.

It seems the cheapest new Mac laptop you could buy starts at $1000, so you can add a lot of upgrades to the Sager before you reach that price point. For example, you can bump up to 8 GB RAM and a 3-year warranty and still be under $900.

Even a refurb Air starts at $850, and then you're only getting 64 GB storage space and a slower processor...

You might also try System 76 for laptops that come with Linux on them.
posted by aheckler at 4:17 AM on January 27, 2013

I doubt you'll find anything you love as much as your MacBook, but if you're thinking of going the Ubuntu route, you might consider the Dell XPS 13 Developer's Edition, with its own Ubuntu build. I believe it meets all of your criteria.
posted by maxim0512 at 5:40 AM on January 27, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. I'll try to take some of the Thinkpads for a test drive at some point, but if the price difference between a good Thinkpad and a decent MacBook is only a couple hundred dollars, I might just save up the extra few months for a Mac.

No Retina display, though. Just like the original firewire barrel iSight I still have, I don't feel like it's ready for the long-term yet - not to mention the un-upgradeability of the innards of those machines.

It's possible I'll break down and buy a cheap-ish laptop to hold me over until I can get a Mac. I'm the only person I know still operating on a 32-bit processor!
posted by WasabiFlux at 12:17 PM on January 31, 2013

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